It’s easy to blame winter injuries on cold weather, snow or ice. But blame won’t take away the employee’s pain, lost work time or workers’ compensation costs associated with an incident.
Planning for harsh winter weather involves more than having a bag of rock salt in the closet and a poster in the cafeteria that says “Bundle Up.” Chances are many of the items that will help get you through the cold weather months are already onsite, but don’t wait till the snow starts flying to review winter safety plans, remind employees of cold weather hazards and ensure the tools and equipment that will be needed are stocked and ready for use.
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Recognize Winter Hazards
People who have lived in cold climates for a long time can sometimes tend to take winter safety for granted. They’ve learned to expect a shiny surface to be icy. They’ve been taught to put on coats, hats, mittens and boots from the time they were old enough to dress themselves. But, that does not excuse the need to identify your workplace’s winter hazards and put plans in place to eliminate or minimize them. Inattention and “just this once” mindsets don’t disappear when the temperature drops.
For employees who will need to work outdoors, cold stress injuries such as hypothermia, frostbite, overexertion and dehydration are risks that cannot be overlooked. And even if everyone works in the comfort of a well-heated building, they still may need to drive to and from the facility, cross parking lots, travel on sidewalks and traverse slippery hallways before they make it to their workstation.
Even the building itself may need some special TLC. Snow and ice that accumulates on the roof may need to be removed, as well as icicles that can damage the building and present a hazard to anyone entering or leaving the building.
Take a trip around your campus (both inside and outside) to identify the winter hazards at your facility, which will determine what you need to plan for.
Have a Plan
A winter safety plan, like other safety plans, will address each of the identified risks and the procedures that will be used to eliminate or minimize that risk. Be sure that plans are specific, listing who will perform an action and when it is to happen. For example, instead of just listing that snow is to be removed from the parking lot, specify that it will be removed by the maintenance staff at least a half hour before shifts begin and end.
Stock Up In Advance
You should begin winter prep months — like stocking up on and gathering needed tools, supplies and equipment — before temperatures get to freezing and one snowflake hits the ground. It can be very difficult to purchase snow shovels, ice melt and other items after the first snowfall or ice event of the season. You should also update employee contact information so that in the event of a shutdown or other weather emergency, you can easily reach everyone. If there is a possibility that employees may need to shelter in place, consider what they may need and provide or encourage employees to have at least the following items:
- Water and food
- Weather radios
- Change of clothing and boots
- Toiletry items
In addition to stocking items, review plans regularly to verify that they are still up to date. The following best practices may help strengthen facility plans.
Even in dry weather, building entrances allow dirt, dry leaves and other slippery nuisance messes to enter your facility. Add rain or snow to the mix — especially on a smooth, finished floor — and the problems can multiply faster than you can grab a wet floor sign.
Entrance mats are a common line of defense for collecting dirt, rain and snow as employees enter the building, but only if they are the right type and length to do the job well. Check the following:
- Length: should be long enough to take three to six steps before stepping off the mat — the longer, the better
- Backing: should not allow the mat to slide when it’s on the floor
- Construction: should be bi-level to allow dirt, rain and snow to collect below the walking surface
- Borders: should not allow water to drain off the mat
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When the weather is bad, it’s important to remember that entrance mats can be overwhelmed by heavy rain or snow events. When they become fully saturated, they won’t be able to do their job. If you can see footprints after someone steps off of a mat, or you see a puddle surrounding the entrance mat, it’s saturated and is not helping you maintain a safe entrance.
Saturated mats need to be replaced so that they do not add to the slip hazard by giving people a false impression that the area is safe. It’s a good idea to have a second and possibly a third set of dry mats that can be rotated into service when the weather is bad. Just make sure the floor is dry before putting the new mats down. If keeping multiple sets of mats isn’t an option, consider:
- Using fans or floor dryers to speed up the drying process. They’re typically loud and that can actually serve as an audible reminder for anyone in the area to pay attention
- Place absorbent adhesive-backed mats in the entrance instead of walk-off mats to soak up water and provide additional traction
- Post signs or other warning devices near the entrance to alert people to slippery surfaces
Grippy Floor Mat is a reliable, tested and proven alternative to entrance mats, eliminating many of the hazards of traditional entrance mats. Because it sticks to the floor and can be cut to any size or shape, it is also more versatile. It can also be vacuumed to remove dirt and water, and it dries much more quickly than traditional entrance mats.
Sidewalks and Parking Lots
Caring for sidewalks sometimes gets lumped into general parking lot care. However, many times the two surfaces are different. Parking lots are often asphalt or gravel and sidewalks are usually untreated cement or clay block. They’re also handled differently when it snows. Parking lots are usually plowed, but sidewalks are shoveled or snow-blown. Icy spots in a parking lot might get a healthy dose of rock salt, but sidewalks are more commonly treated with a salt substitute or maybe an anti-slip aggregate. Recognizing these differences can help increase safety in both areas when snow or ice is in the forecast.
One hazard both parking lots and sidewalks share is that snow and ice exponentially increase slipping hazards, especially when snow hides a layer of ice beneath it. Keeping outdoor areas clear of snow and ice in the winter can be a big challenge, particularly for facilities with large outdoor campuses.
Having a well-established plan for how to handle snow and ice in parking lots and on sidewalks is essential. An added bonus of keeping parking lots and sidewalks clear is that less snowmelt will enter the building on people’s feet, so entranceways aren’t as quickly overwhelmed. Outdoor winter weather plans should include:
- Names of personnel responsible for snow removal and phone numbers to reach them
- A method for monitoring weather forecasts and a means of adjusting employee schedules and communicating those changes to them, if necessary
- A time at which all snow that fell overnight will be removed (should be at least half an hour before shift changes)
- A process stating what will be plowed/shoveled/cleared first, second, etc.
- A list of tools available for snow removal, and their locations
- Sufficient quantities of anti-slip and/or deicing agents
- Strategies for inspecting outdoor areas and maintaining snow removal during long snow or ice events
- Pre-printed signs, cones, barriers or other devices to identify hazardous areas that have not yet been cleared
Just because it’s not cold outside doesn’t mean that your attention can be turned away from parking lots and sidewalks. These areas can also be overlooked during rain events because the surfaces are traditionally coarse, porous and not especially slippery even when they are wet. However, if parking lots or sidewalks are sealed, painted or have oil stains, the equation changes. If a non-texturized paint is used to mark handicap ramps, draw attention to curbs, paint parking lines, or note variations in the walking surface, these lines and markings can be very slippery when it rains. Choosing paints with aggregate in them can help minimize these hazards.
No one can control rain, snow or ice. But, facilities that have plans in place to prevent bad weather from making surfaces slippery are better able to manage these events and minimize the potential for slips and falls.
Slips and falls can happen at any time, but are more prevalent in the winter months. Encourage employees not to wear smooth-soled shoes or high heels, especially outdoors. Grounds crews or anyone working outdoors may benefit from wearing winter cleats over their shoes or boots with winter treads.
Employees should also be taught and reminded to take small steps when walking on slippery surfaces, use handrails and not take shortcuts. Avoid carrying large items and being distracted while walking are especially important in winter months.
Cold Weather Work
Working outdoors in extremely cold weather can quickly take its toll on workers. Sometimes the work can’t wait, but the following should always be considered:
- Wind chill factors
- Acclimation of the workforce to cold working conditions
- Wetness/dampness that makes people colder faster
- Physical conditioning and health issues
Providing appropriate winter clothing, including eye protection, hats, face masks, waterproof boots and gloves, is essential. But, time spent outdoors may still need to be limited, sometimes to as little as 5 or 10 minutes, depending on the temperature, wind chill and other factors. In addition to clothing, have a plan for warming employees and making sure they don’t become dehydrated.
Take the time to communicate winter safety procedures. This might be done in classroom trainings, during toolbox talks, through the use of posters or other interoffice communications. Be sure that employees know:
- How supervisors will communicate with them in the event of a weather-related emergency
- The signs of hypothermia and how to prevent it and other cold stress injuries
- The importance of paying attention while walking outdoors, wearing the right footwear and avoiding shortcuts
- The location of ice melt, absorbents and other items that can be used to prevent slip and fall injuries
Unlike other workplace hazards, snow, ice and cold temperatures can’t be prevented. But with pre-planning and communication, everyone can be prepared and able to reduce the chance of injuries. And, there’s always the hope of an early spring!